Grandpa Joe, me, my sister Shannon, and the one and only Grandma Gracie

Grandpa, me, my sister Shannon, and the one and only “Gram”, Florida, 1983

My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a fierce Italian woman who hugged too tightly and never hesitated to tell you what was on her mind. She fed us well and despite the fact that she was only 4′ 11″, her footsteps were like that of an elephant’s (she was always in heels). I swear they based the Prince spaghetti TV commercial on her calling my brother to dinner (“Annnthony!”). She passed away last October, five days before I left for my first ever trip to Nepal. I returned to NY to celebrate her life and then boarded the plane for a journey that would change my own.

In my backpack, I carried two of her prayer cards: a laminated version with a picture of the Blessed Mother looking down with love upon three children, and a paper one with a solitary image of the Virgin Mary. Mary was my grandmother’s lodestar, her namesake, and in her final years, who she remembered her own mother to be. It is because of my grandmother that my daughter carries the same name.

Two days after my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself crouching on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, the gateway to The Beyond for the Hindu community in Nepal. A continuous stream of funeral pyres burn here, releasing into the waters the remnants of the dead, then are re-lit over and over again. I crouched in the shadow of the great Shree Pashupatinath temple, in my hand was the paper prayer card, Mary looking out into an unseen distance. I thanked my grandmother for her love and devotion. I promised to always remember that “blood is thicker than water”, and to keep my eyes out for a “decent” girlfriend for my single brother, then let the card be carried away with the ashes of so many others in the waters of the Bagmati.

Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015 – photo credit: Sahadev Panday

Despite the fact that I was able to perform my good-bye ceremony in one of the most sacred places on the planet, I didn’t experience my grandmother’s spirit until I was hiking through the foothills of the Himalayas. We marched through one tiny village after another with so many lovely, solemn individuals who, though friendly, kept mostly to themselves, a result of not speaking our language. Or so I’d assumed. But rounding the corner one warm morning we came across an ardent, ageless crone who we heard before we saw anxious to discuss with us, language barrier or not, what exactly was on her mind. We met what could only be described as my Nepali grandmother.

My Nepali Grandmother, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 2015

My Nepali Grandmother, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 2015

This woman called us over to show us her broken eyeglasses. A nonagenarian like Grandma, her fingers were bent by time, arthritic, and pointed at each of us with aggression. Nepali Grandma animatedly explained to our guide that her daughter had left to go breed a bull in another village and left her behind with broken glasses. She was hard of hearing, but sharp as a tack and had something to say about each of us. It was the same demanding attitude, the same crooked fingers, the same “what in the Hell do you know!” as my own Italian matriarch. She waved us away, annoyed we didn’t have any glasses to give her. I quietly sidled up to her, held her hand as she talked. My expectation was some wisdom or a spark of recognition from her — for clearly she was my grandmother in another time and a very faraway place — but there was none. This woman took no notice of me, barely registered that I was touching her at all. I left grateful for the opportunity to see my grandmother lived on in unexpected ways.

This past week, my grandmother’s cousin and her closest friend, passed away. “Nonina”, as she was known in the family, was as fierce and Italian as Grandma, and together they had so much deliciousness to offer the world, only slightly shadowed by the vast amount of opinions they held about it. Where Grandma held expertise in food (though Nonina was no slouch), Nonina knew her fashion, and thanks to her, as a kid I was dressed in the very best chiffon and polyesters that the 70’s had to offer. Nonina’s children were her life, as she would tell you over and over again, and there was not an award, a performance or a Halloween costume that would pass without her inspection. Now that she is gone, the world is a little dimmer, but I can only imagine the Sunday dinner happening now that she has been called home.

After Nepal, I am excited to see how Nonina will show up again. I look forward to the unexpected moment when I hear two older ladies arguing and instantly think of Grandma and Nonina. And I’m curious to see where I’ll encounter someone who refers to me as, “doll”. While I miss them both very much, I can’t wait until they visit me once again.

Grandma and Nonina, Oct. 12, 2002

Grandma and Nonina, Oct. 12, 2002 – photo credit: Joseph Schuyler

 

 

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